A censor used to burn incense within the church.

My daughter brought her boyfriend to church yesterday.  It's a first for us.  First boyfriend and first time bringing him to church.  It was also a first for him - being inside an Orthodox Church.

She had to go to work right after the service so we didn't get to talk much about his experience, but during service I couldn't help but look around more and recall how I had taken in my surroundings of an Orthodox church the first time I ever visited one.  There's a LOT to notice.

The Incense -   If you are not used to incense, it could be a bit overwhelming.  I did find it a bit overwhelming my first few times inside an Orthodox church but have, over time, begun to truly love that the Orthodox worship services does appeal to all of our senses.  This incense symbolizes prayer which rises to God (like smoke) and the Grace of God which pours into our souls.  We sometimes burn incense in our homes as well, especially around the feast days.

The Icons -Being formerly Catholic I was used to figurines and various forms of pictures icon-540784_1280in church and homes, but I did wonder at the number of icons and the beauty shining from them.  The Icons are windows to Heaven.  We do not worship them, we venerate them; there's a HUGE difference but I'm sure it's quite confusing to a protestant entering the church for the first time.

Kissing -  What was the deal with everyone kissing everything?  This was unexpected for me as well.  I remember a very kindly old woman with nails as red as rubies grabbing my cheeks, pinching and leaning in to kiss them both.  WHAT?!  I went along with it out of sheer politeness but it sure did have me spinning in bewilderment.  A new visitor to the Orthodox church will notice we do indeed kiss a lot.  We kiss the icons upon entering church and before we leave (it's a sign of reverence, not worship, much like you would kiss a photograph of a deceased loved one).  We kiss the chalice and, in some churches, some kiss the priests hand after receiving communion. We also kiss each other before taking communion or as a simple sign of greeting (though in some parishes such as the OCA church I now attend do not do this nearly as much as other parishes).

Blessed Bred & Consecrated Bread -  This was a big eye opener for me.  Literally, I think my eyes just about popped out of my head as I totally did not get that the blessed

Communion in an Orthodox Church
Communion in an Orthodox Church

bread was not the same as the communion bread and I was shocked to see people taking handfuls of bread and walking around the church with it- giving it to others and watching crumbs fall upon the floor!  My stomach flipped- as I really thought this was the communion bread- the body of Christ- being stepped on by people in the isles. Needless to say I hope, I was WRONG and I was QUITE relived upon learning that the basket or plate of bread that people are able to partake of after communion is blessed, but not consecrated and therefore people can take portions for themselves as well as share it with others who have not gone to communion that day or are new visitors to the church as a sign of fellowship.

Music -  The music in the Orthodox Church is beautiful, but what made it noticeable to me right away was the lack of musical instruments.  Only the human voice is used in the Orthodox worship services.

I'm not sure what our daughter's boyfriend thought of all this yet, but I certainly enjoyed reflecting back onto my own first experience and all of my experiences that led me to converting to Orthodoxy.

What was the first thing YOU noticed about the Orthodox Church?  If you've never been in one, what is the one thing you are curious about?

Additional Resources on the above topics:

Incense in the Orthodox Church

No Graven Image:  Icons in the Orthodox Church

Music in the Orthodox Church

12 Things I Wish I Had Known




My little boy likes to scurry over to the isle as the priest walks by with the censor at the beginning of the service so he can deeply inhale the incesne.  He was very upset this past week when there were too many people in our aisle for him to get by in time.  We'll have to remember to stand closer to the end by the isle next time!      

The Orthodox Church service always uses incense in our worship.  The Orthodox Church Liturgy addresses all of the senses and incense, of course, calls upon the sense of smell.  Physical symbols are an important part of worship and incense is one physical reminder of the special purpose at hand while we are present within the church [other physical reminders include water in Baptism, kneeling, etc.] and symbolizes our prayers ascending to God in His heavenly kingdom.

The bible refers to the use of incense in worship. The first mention is in Exodus 25:6, where God listed it among the offerings He desired from the people of Israel.  God also included incense in His detailed directions to Moses for the building of the altar in the tabernacle. And later, God became angry with Israel when they offered incense to foreign gods.  In Psalm 142:2, David says, "Let my prayer arise before you as incense."  In the New Testament, Zacharias was offering incense in the temple when the angel appeared to him and the wise men who came to worship Christ offered gifts of "gold, frankincense, and myrrh".  Incense is also mentioned several times in the Book of Revelation indicating that it is present in heaven.

Incense, however, was not commonly used by the Church during the first three centuries.  This, unfortunately, was due to the the Romans practice of asking Christians to renounce their faith and accept pagan worship and having the person offer incense to the image of the Roman emperor as a test to their renunciation. When this terrible era of persecutions ended, the Church was able to reintroduce incense into worship in its proper way.

Many Orthodox Christians use incense in their homes, the domestic church,  as a  physical and symbolic reminder (one of many). For when we use incense in worship the way we do, it doesn't matter where we are or what we are doing, we are reminded of the  Kingdom of God.

LORD, I Have Cried Out Unto You: hear me! Hear me, O Lord!
Lord, I Have Cried Out Unto You: hear me!
Receive the voice of my prayer!
When I call upon You, hear me, O Lord!
Let my prayer arise in Your sight as incense,
And let the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice.
Hear me, O Lord!